Book: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The Lover
by Marguerite Duras
translated from French into English by Barbara Bray
published by Pantheon Books, NY
1985

On the paths of the yard the shadows of the cinnamon-apple trees are inky black. The whole garden is still as marble. The house too – monumental, funereal. And my younger brother, who was walking beside me, now looks intently at the gate open on the empty road.

Note: This edition of Duras’ concise novel includes an introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston, who advises us to interpret the novel as autobiographical, which I might not have done otherwise. She also observes parallels with Duras’ screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’ve read, and her observations gave me insights about Duras’ life.

If there was a character limit to my remarks about reading this book, I would write something like: at-risk French girl in occupied Vietnam escapes her unhappy home by sleeping with a meek older man; a dire situation, beautifully described. Unluckily for you, I can write all the words I want!

Through a series of increasingly vivid memories that drift forward and back in time, Duras’ novel tells the story of an impoverished French teen in French-occupied (colonial) Vietnam, living with her deeply depressed mother, two brothers, and a her own developing awareness of mortality. (So FRENCH!)

Our unnamed character’s life is tenuous. She wears her mother’s old, threadbare clothes; the family struggles on her mother’s schoolmistress wages after her father’s unexpected death; a sense of doom hangs over the family; her mother not only falls frequently into immobile despair, but also spoils her sons while pressuring her daughter to make up for their failures.

Her escape: to get into the limousine of a nervous, fellow foreigner, but one who is not French: a wealthy Chinese man, entirely beholden to his father, but also inappropriately smitten at first sight of this inappropriately dressed, quite underaged teen.

The novel is often (but not always) a first person narration, centering the girl’s alienation from Vietnamese culture and her own (French) family; the alienation of remote colonial life; the constraints of poverty; the scarring, emotional tensions of her household; her self-enforced emotional distance from her unsuitable lover; the pain of her mother’s exploitation; and always – always always – a sense that everyone will die and all things must end.

The prose is visually rich and lightly punctuated as the narrator moves from awkward social interactions of German-occupied France in adulthood to afternoons of being fully absorbed by illicit sex in Vietnam; from invisibility to parental approval for all the wrong reasons; forward to deaths, and backward to youth. It starts as a novel, and winds up a vivid, non-linear series of beautifully described recollections.

It absorbed me completely, and I’m glad I read it.

Book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Cover of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
published by Penguin Random House
2016

“Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”
– The Husband, after his Wife’s spontaneous suicide attempt after she is physically attacked by her family.
(OMG, the lack of self awareness for this character is SO CONVINCING!)

The award winning novel, The Vegetarian, translated into English from Korean, tells the story of a woman living in a strictly conformist, patriarchal society, in a traditional marriage, from a domineering family, who decides to change just one thing about her life. After a dream of animal suffering, she decides to stop eating meat.

All hell breaks loose.

Our protagonist is nameless at first, and is initially defined only by her relationships to others. Her story is told primarily through the eyes of her self-absorbed husband, her obsessive brother-in-law, and her deeply concerned sister, each of whom sees her quite differently and has a completely different experience of knowing her and watching her change.

The story (or up to four stories, depending on how you view it) is a dark view of obligation, conformity, and custom, with glimpses of vivid, delicate, fleeting freedom.

(As a vegetarian who LOVES the vegan Buddhist temple food of Korea, the lack of understanding in this setting by her conformist family was especially striking. The precedent and ethics of her choice were not relevant to anyone at the time, which is more indicative of her situation than the specific choice she was making. )

Book: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Cover of The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power
by Naomi Alderman
published by Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company)
2016

What would happen to the structure of society if women had the physical power to defend themselves, or even routinely overpower men?

In this engrossing novel, women develop the ability to generate electricity. Humans already have a lot of electrical wiring internally, but in the book, a scientific intervention intended for one purpose may have inadvertently given rise to the ability for women to generate and control electricity, an have the ability to taze at will from puberty onward.

This changes the world.

The story follows several women, both privileged and disadvantaged, comfortable and abused, in the spotlight and sidelined, who find different ways of utilizing this development to influence the direction their societies evolve in. The story of an intrepid male reporter from Lagos also provides a sympathetic (and at times, alarmed) point of view.

Alderman does a remarkable job of showing the RANGE of impacts that could arise, from fiercely patriarchal societies harming or killing women to maintain control, to government leaders militarizing this new ability; from women who use moderation in utilizing their new powers in societies that have included them, to women who wreak vengeance upon their captors and oppressors in societies were they functionally enslaved.

The way the book ends… just be sure to read what looks like an appendix, but is a key part of the story.

Yes, I’m sure Margaret Atwood is DELIGHTED that she got to make such a concise review-and-play-on-words about this book ON THE FRONT COVER.

As someone who has daydreamed of subtly engineering women to be stronger to decrease abuses, do I think that power struggles could play out as they do in this book? Yes, and perhaps Alderman is more realistic than I am, considering history. When have the powerful ever shared power willingly and peacefully? When have enslaved people ever received justice? When have oppressors ever willingly made amends? My own dark futures in fiction are dark DIFFERENTLY, but yes, I think we agree on the backlash. Because: humans.

Also note: read the acknowledgements. No, really.

Summary: a page-turner of a book with a thoughtful story arc for the characters, thoughtful (and very dramatic) implications across the wide range of conditions, and a dark view which is entirely fair, considering the state of the world. I’m glad I read it.